Lord Brett obituary

Publié le par The Guardian - Francis Beckett

The Guardianpublished 04/04/2012 at 16:42 BST by Francis Beckett

Leading figure in the trade union movement, keen to realise its international influence

William Henry Brett
Lord Brett, better known as Bill Brett, who has died aged 70 after a long illness, was general secretary of the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists (IPMS, and now called Prospect) between 1989 and 1999. He chaired the governing body of the Geneva-based International Labour Office in 2002-03, and in 2004 became director of the ILO office for the UK and Ireland. In the Lords he served as a government whip (2008-10), and as a stand-in parliamentary under-secretary for the Home Office (2009).

He was a big figure in the trade union movement in every way: a charismatic and effective union leader and a member of the TUC's ruling general council; a physical presence you could not miss – he was 6ft 5in tall and substantially built; a man of enormous energy and charm, who talked fast and entertainingly, and made a mark wherever he went; and a man with large appetites – colleagues remember phenomenal consumption of food and drink.

Born in Manchester – and all his life a devoted Manchester United fan – he left Radcliffe Secondary Technical College in 1958, aged 16, and became a booking clerk for British Rail. Two years later he got his start in the trade unions as an administrative assistant at the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. He worked for the National Union of Bank Employees and the Association of Scientific, Technical and Managerial Staffs, before moving to what was then called the Institution of Professional Civil Servants in 1974.

There he became assistant general secretary in 1980, and by 1989, when the general secretary retired, Brett had established himself as the inevitable successor, being elected to the top job unopposed. One of his first tasks was to oversee the change of name to IPMS, to take account of the new reality that the professionals and specialists it represented were no longer mostly civil servants.

Brett was considered one of the best and brightest of the new generation of union leaders. He was the driving force behind the creation of a federation between five unions with professional memberships, which seemed to offer economies of scale without loss of autonomy. But after three years he seemed to have lost interest in it, coming to believe that IPMS had no future as an independent trade union, and started to pin his hopes on a merger with the Management Science Finance union.

This turned out to be his undoing. The proposed merger was hugely unpopular, and the 1997 IPMS conference put it on hold while an enquiry established what the chances were of survival as an independent union. The enquiry reported that IPMS could survive. The merger was politically dead, and Brett's authority seriously undermined, criticised both for the merger proposals and for spending a lot of time out of the country on ILO business.

There was, he believed, serious work to be done in the ILO, where he was especially active as a campaigner for Burmese democracy (he lived to see Aung San Suu Kyi elected to her country's parliament). His old friend Denis MacShane MP says that he "understood the importance of international trade unionism as a mechanism for social change".

Due to stand for re-election, and in danger of losing, Brett announced his resignation in January 1998 and the following year was made a life peer. But his greatest service to IPMS members was still to come. New Labour had come to power vowing not to privatise air traffic control, but very quickly started to privatise it anyway. Knowing he could not stop the privatisation, he "sold" his vote in return for reassurances that any firm taking over the National Air Traffic Service could not raid its pension fund surplus. Brett's old colleagues and members understood, and were grateful.

He is survived by his third wife, Amanda; two children from his first marriage, Martin and Claire; and two from his second marriage, Judith and Hannah.

William Henry Brett, Lord Brett, trade unionist and politician, born 6 March 1942; died 29 March 2012

Publié dans Avis de décès

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